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Liberation Theology

Do you know what mercedes means? Read on!

a synopsis of Robert V. Andelson and James M. Dawsey: From Wasteland to Promised land: Liberation Theology for a Post-Marxist World

The point of departure of liberation theology is the recognition of the awful fact that millions lead subhuman lives. The rural landless seek refuge in cities, often becoming squatters in barrios or favelas with open sewage and no safe water supply. They may earn fifteen dollars a month if they find work at all. Children live in the streets and go to bed hungry. Illness and drought, and even complaining of their lot, may lead to premature death. And they can see the Mercedes behind the iron gates of walled mansions. (Ironically, mercedes is also a Spanish legal term denoting title to a large grant of land.) Like poor Lazarus in the parable of Jesus (Luke 16:19-31), they survive on the crumbs that fall from the rich man's table. When judgement comes to the rich man, he receives no mercy because he had shown none.

... Even today many practicing Roman Catholics approach carnival as a temporary relief from suffering -- a reality that was present yesterday and will be here tomorrow, always. In this sense, carnival is escapism -- for a few days. Then real life continues. ...

The origins of this suffering are clearly to be found in the aristocratic system imposed by papal bull and the armed might of Spain and Portugal, a system that relegated the indigenous Indian population to a life of slavery, at best. In Inter Caeteris, Pope Alexander VI designated King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella "lords and masters" of the New World. Thus were the treasure stores of gold and silver, and later coffee and beef, thrown open -- to a well-defined elite.

The encomienda was the basic instrument used by the Spanish empire for settling Latin America. This was a grant of Indians to an encomendero who assumed the obligation, in principle, of Christianizing and civilizing them. The Indians, "in exchange", were required to provide labor and tribute to Spain.  ...

However, religious works cannot avoid their political context (an insight of the liberation theologians). Although in theory the encomienda was not a grant of land, in practice many of the encomienderos were also granted mercedes, or legal title to vast tracts that gave rise to the late estates. After the encomienda system was abolished, this control of land allowed the economic exploitation of the natives to continue.

Two types of large landed estates survive to this day from the colonial period:
  • the hacienda (or fazenda, in Portuguese), raising cattle and a diversity of crops for local use or sale; and
  • the plantation, raising a single exportable crop.
Initially, Indians were given as slaves to the landholders. Later, the "freed" natives were tied to the landowners through debts brought on by a subsistence wage system. The shortage of good land off the estate made it easy for the landlord to attract or coerce labor onto his estate.

This pattern continues today with an underclass largely descended from the Indian and African slaves, along with other dispossessed groups. The haciendas and plantations are noted for their inefficient husbandry. Landowners face few social or economic pressures to become good managers, and often live in the cities leaving the estates to be run by overseers. Consequently, the landowners often do not make large profits, but that is not their objective. Their primary concern is the maintenance of the two paramount features of the status quo, which go hand in hand.
  • First, labor is very cheap, because workers have no alternative place to employ themselves, even though massive tracts of good land are held nearly idle by the land barons.
  • Second, the cost of holding on to huge estates -- i.e., the taxes charged by the public for the privilege of retaining possession -- are low or effectively nonexistent.
Strong incentives for good stewardship are as absent as the landlords.

There is also little incentive to productivity; most of the population has no share in the fruits of the land or the profits of the estates.  ...

Indeed, the primary purpose of holding vast amounts of land, as Andre Gunder Frank writes in On Capitalist Underdevelopment, "is not to use it but to prevent its use by others. These others, denied access to the primary resource, necessarily fall under the domination of the few who do control it. And then they are exploited in all conceivable ways, typically through low wages." ...

Effective land reform in Latin America, as elsewhere, has scarcely taken place.
  • One of the major obstacles is that many governments are run or controlled by a powerful elite that owns the most valuable land, and often retards and corrupts the reform process.
  • Foreign enterprises also fight the reforms by threatening to withdraw their investments.
  • They are aided by fiscally conservative politicians who argue that stability is necessary for economic development, even at the expense of ignoring the exploitation of the poor, who are poorly represented in the political process.
  • And the few that have been enacted have been plagued by a host of problems, and often merely reposition the former landowners, thanks to compensation for expropriated lands, as the new monopolists of trade and money lending, able to renew their exploitation of the poor.

Turning to their religious heritage for answers to severe injustice and suffering due to land monopoly seems natural to liberation theologians and their followers. In the Bible, the Promised Land is characterized by the "eminent domain" of God. The abundance of the land comes with the recognition that the earth is the Lord's. Otherwise, we continue in the Wasteland. 

To recognize that "the earth is the Lord's" is to see that the same God who established communities has also in his providence ordained for them, through the land itself, a just source of revenue. Yet, in the Wasteland in which we live, this revenue goes mainly into the pockets of monopolists, while communities meet their needs by extorting individuals the fruits of their honest toil. If ever there were any doubt that structural sin exists, our present system of taxation is the proof. Everywhere we see governments penalizing individuals for their industry and creativity, while the socially produced value of land is reaped by speculators in exact proportion to the land which they withhold. The greater the Wasteland, the greater the reward. Does this comport with any divine plan, or notion of justice and human rights? Or does it not, rather, perpetuate the Wasteland and prevent the realization of the Promised Land?

This not meant to suggest that land monopolists and speculators have a corner on acquisitiveness or the "profit motive," which is a well-nigh universal fact of human nature. As a group, they are no more sinful than are people at large, except to the degree that they knowingly obstruct reforms aimed at removing the basis of exploitation. Many abide by the dictum: "If one has to live under a corrupt system, it is better to be a beneficiary than a victim of it."

But they do not have to live under a corrupt system; no one does. The profit motive can be channeled in ways that are socially desirable as well as in ways that are socially destructive. Let us give testimony to our faith that the earth is the Lord's by building a social order in which there are no victims.   Read the whole synopsis


James Kiefer: James Huntington and the ideas of Henry George

Henry George, author of Progress and Poverty, argued that, while some forms of wealth are produced by human activity, and are rightly the property of the producers (or those who have obtained them from the previous owners by voluntary gift or exchange), land and natural resources are bestowed by God on the human race, and that every one of the N inhabitants of the earth has a claim to 1/Nth of the coal beds, 1/Nth of the oil wells, 1/Nth of the mines, and 1/Nth of the fertile soil. God wills a society where everyone may sit in peace under his own vine and his own fig tree.

The Law of Moses undertook to implement this by making the ownership of land hereditary, with a man's land divided among his sons (or, in the absence of sons, his daughters), and prohibiting the permanent sale of land. (See Leviticus 25:13-17,23.) The most a man might do with his land is sell the use of it until the next Jubilee year, an amnesty declared once every fifty years, when all debts were cancelled and all land returned to its hereditary owner.

Henry George's proposed implementation is to tax all land at about 99.99% of its rental value, leaving the owner of record enough to cover his bookkeeping expenses. The resulting revenues would be divided equally among the natural owners of the land, viz. the people of the country, with everyone receiving a dividend check regularly for the use of his share of the earth (here I am anticipating what I think George would have suggested if he had written in the 1990's rather than the 1870's).

This procedure would have the effect of making the sale price of a piece of land, not including the price of buildings and other improvements on it, practically zero. The cost of being a landholder would be, not the original sale price, but the tax, equivalent to rent. A man who chose to hold his "fair share," or 1/Nth of all the land, would pay a land tax about equal to his dividend check, and so would break even. By 1/Nth of the land is meant land with a value equal to 1/Nth of the value of all the land in the country.

Naturally, an acre in the business district of a great city would be worth as much as many square miles in the open country. Some would prefer to hold more than one N'th of the land and pay for the privilege. Some would prefer to hold less land, or no land at all, and get a small annual check representing the dividend on their inheritance from their father Adam.

Note that, at least for the able-bodied, this solves the problem of poverty at a stroke. If the total land and total labor of the world are enough to feed and clothe the existing population, then 1/Nth of the land and 1/Nth of the labor are enough to feed and clothe 1/Nth of the population. A family of 4 occupying 4/Nths of the land (which is what their dividend checks will enable them to pay the tax on) will find that their labor applied to that land is enough to enable them to feed and clothe themselves. Of course, they may prefer to apply their labor elsewhere more profitably, but the situation from which we start is one in which everyone has his own plot of ground from which to wrest a living by the strength of his own back, and any deviation from this is the result of voluntary exchanges agreed to by the parties directly involved, who judge themselves to be better off as the result of the exchanges.

Some readers may think this a very radical proposal. In fact, it is extremely conservative, in the sense of being in agreement with historic ideas about land ownership as opposed to ownership of, say, tools or vehicles or gold or domestic animals or other movables. The laws of English-speaking countries uniformly distinguish between real property (land) and personal property (everything else). In this context, "real" is not the opposite of "imaginary." It is a form of the word "royal," and means that the ultimate owner of the land is the king, as symbol of the people. Note that English-derived law does not recognize "landowners." The term is "landholders." The concept of eminent domain is that the landholder may be forced to surrender his landholdings to the government for a public purpose. Historically, eminent domain does not apply to property other than land, although complications arise when there are buildings on the land that is being seized.

I will mention in passing that the proposals of Henry George have attracted support from persons as diverse as Felix Morley, Aldous Huxley, Woodrow Wilson, Helen Keller, Winston Churchill, Leo Tolstoy, William F Buckley Jr, and Sun Yat-sen. To the Five Nobel Prizes authorized by Alfred Nobel himself there has been added a sixth, in Economics, and the Henry George Foundation claims eight of the Economics Laureates as supporters, in whole or in part, of the proposals of Henry George (Paul Samuelson, 1970; Milton Friedman, 1976; Herbert A Simon, 1978; James Tobin, 1981; Franco Modigliani, 1985; James M Buchanan, 1986; Robert M Solow, 1987; William S Vickrey, 1996).

The immediate concrete proposal favored by most Georgists today is that cities shall tax land within their boundaries at a higher rate than they tax buildings and other improvements on the land. (In case anyone is about to ask, "How can we possibly distinguish between the value of the land and the value of the buildings on it?" let me assure you that real estate assessors do it all the time. It is standard practice to make the two assessments separately, and a parcel of land in the business district of a large city very often has a different owner from the building on it.) Many cities have moved to a system of taxing land more heavily than improvements, and most have been pleased with the results, finding that landholders are more likely to use their land productively -- to their own benefit and that of the public -- if their taxes do not automatically go up when they improve their land by constructing or maintaining buildings on it.

An advantage of this proposal in the eyes of many is that it is a Fabian proposal, "evolution, not revolution," that it is incremental and reversible. If a city or other jurisdiction does not like the results of a two-level tax system, it can repeal the arrangement or reduce the difference in levels with no great upheaval. It is not like some other proposals of the form, "Distribute all wealth justly, and make me absolute dictator of the world so that I can supervise the distribution, and if it doesn't work, I promise to resign." The problem is that absolute dictators seldom resign. ... read the whole article



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Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper